Little feet tread through slushy April snow and approach the railing, peering over the edge of the bridge into the cold, flowing water of the Shawsheen River in eastern Massachusetts.
“I see one!”
They counted them 1,2,3.
The Joshi family children shouted out numbers as silver blue blurs glided through the dark water.
“We counted 95,” recalled Andover resident Jon Honea. He explained that this meant that as many as 425 passed by when volunteers weren’t watching.
They were counting river herring – alewives and blueback herring, two closely related species of migratory fish that hadn’t been seen in the river for nearly two centuries.
And while river herring are no Shoeless Joe Jackson, their homecoming to the Shawsheen points to the success of the recent removal of the Balmoral and Marland Place Dams.
“All you have to do is make space,” said Honea, member of the Andover Conservation Commission and an environmental science professor at Emerson College.
Tracking the herring’s return to the Shawsheen River was a community affair, drawing over 250 volunteers. Residents from the Atria assisted living facility – whose residence was threatened by increased flood risk from the dam – joined the fun, alongside Andover high school students and dedicated families like the Joshi family, who counted multiple times every week.
“The removal of these two dams not only increases the resiliency of the Town of Andover, but reconnects the community to the river by restoring lost recreational opportunities and natural ecological processes upon which we all rely,” explained Bill Bennett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Not only were these dams a public safety hazard – heightening flood risk and threatening paddlers – they also blocked the travels of migratory fish throughout the river.
Dams prevent rivers from flowing naturally, impairing water quality and interrupting natural stream processes that both people and wildlife populations rely on.
Partners and volunteers have already documented a steady reappearance of river herring in the Shawsheen, but other wildlife such as American shad and American eel are also expected to arrive.
These removals opened up 4.1 miles of the river and restored 16 acres of wildlife habitat, allowing these fish to reach spawning grounds that are critical for their survival.
Though these smaller fish aren’t coveted by anglers, they are eaten by other wildlife such as larger game fish – like striped bass – shorebirds, raptors and river otters.
Snapping turtles and great blue heron have also been observed enjoying the free-flowing state of the lower Shawsheen River, below the remaining Ballardvale Dam.
Jane Cairns of the Andover Historical Society explained the rich history of the Shawsheen River, mentioning that the Marland Place Dam supported mill operations in the town, even powering a site that at one point supplied gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army.
She, like Honea, is also a member of the Shawsheen Greenway, an organization focused on making the Shawsheen River corridor a vital recreational, cultural, transportation, and educational resource for the entire community and region.
“We’ve been reminded, as many other communities have before us, that a clean and healthy, free-flowing river is a significant asset for the town, and can provide a boost to both our recreational and business resources,” Cairns said.
Nick Wildman, a restoration specialist from the Massachusetts Department Fish & Game, has been involved with these removals since 2009. He called the projects a “public investment for public benefit,” adding that the dam removals along the Shawsheen River represent a resurgence of the place that rivers have in our lives.
It doesn’t end there. Though public safety and stewardship of the river and fisheries were paramount to community leaders, fewer dams are a home run for experienced paddlers, who no longer have to transport their boats around the dams on land.
“The newly opened stretches of the river are quite beautiful and exciting,” Honea said. “There are long stretches with just forest on either side and several newly accessible drops, including a couple very exciting rapids.”
“These projects are not possible without strong partnerships between the federal, state, and local communities,” Bennett said.
Some of these partners embarked on a celebratory paddling trip in May to explore the newly free-flowing Shawsheen River.
Three canoes set out on the river. Eric Hutchins of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bill Bennett of the Service in one, Nick Nelson of Interfluve – a national firm focused on river restoration – and his son in another, and Andover’s Conservation Commissioners, Jon Honea and Floyd Greenwood, in the third boat.
While paddling, Hutchins and Nelson noticed a gizzard shad also exploring the newly restored river.
“Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and their stewardship is of the utmost importance,” Bennett said.
The town sees it the same way.
“The Town of Andover is very excited about the removal of the dams – many people see this as the start of a real renaissance of the Shawsheen,” said Bob Douglas, conservation director for the Town of Andover. “Our residents are looking forward to being able to paddle the unbridled Shawsheen from the Ballardvale mill district, through the center of town, all the way to the mighty Merrimack.”